Rules package sets the table for the unexpected on Sunday

LAS VEGAS — A jumbled final practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway offered an indication of what sort of race to expect in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). What it didn’t deliver: A clear prediction of a pre-race favorite with the full-on 2019 Monster Energy Series rules package in effect.

Favorites and long-shots typically play well in the mecca of gambling, but even with the on-track time of a two-day test, practice and qualifying with the new package, the 1.5-mile facility remains a cauldron of unpredictability.

The final practice leaderboard wasn’t much help. Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric led the way, going 1-2 in both practices to back up their strength at the January test here. But other anomalies abounded: Kevin Harvick won the Busch Pole in Friday qualifying, but his best lap in Saturday practice ranked just 29th. Martin Truex Jr., another former Vegas winner and another third of last year’s Big 3 dominators, was one spot worse in 30th.

“There is a certain level of that because the ultimate speed is situational on the race track,” said Adam Stevens, crew chief of Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, suggesting that less credence be given to practice speeds. “I am sure (Austin Dillon’s No. 3 team) didn’t run the lap they did and didn’t get some amount of help. We didn’t run some of the best laps we were running without some type of help. It’s all about who can stay in the gas the longest and navigate through traffic and get out front. The relativity of the speed chart is a bit like a superspeedway.”

Other characteristics of superspeedway racing — once reserved to two annual races each at Daytona and Talladega — may well apply in portions of Sunday’s 400-miler with the intention of tightening the competition.

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The rules package that NASCAR officials introduced for this season contains a tapered engine spacer designed to limit horsepower to a target level of 550. Aerodynamic devices take it a step further, adding downforce with the use of a larger spoiler and splitter, plus a wider radiator pan. Another apparatus in effect this weekend that wasn’t last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway: ducts up front that transfer air to the side of the car away from the front tires to create a larger, more beneficial aerodynamic wake for cars behind the leader.

The effect thus far in Las Vegas: Drivers have been able to hold the gas pedal wide open for parts of a green-flag run until tire wear forces off-throttle time to navigate the turns. But they’ve also had to manage how well they run in traffic, using momentum and the aerodynamic forces of drafting in a pack to gain ground.

“I think that even though we’re on a grippier race track, it still looked like some cars were grip-limited and having to let out of the gas,” said Denny Hamlin, who will start second. “So I would suspect that Sunday, you’re still going to have to have a good handling car similar to what you had in Atlanta.”

The Las Vegas learnings thus far, however, may be tempered by the fact that tests, qualifying and practice do not equal full-field race conditions — a scenario that played out in Daytona’s Speedweeks with an intense Daytona 500 that didn’t resemble the tamer Clash exhibition or qualifying races.

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The full 2019 rules setup will make its next appearance in two weeks at Auto Club Speedway, then two weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s early, but the referendum on the package’s impact has already begun.

“If the fans like it, I’m into it,” said Jimmie Johnson, a four-time Vegas winner. “We’re here to put on a show and entertain the fans and represent our sponsors. It is difficult with this rules package in general, it’s kind of different than the way we all grew up in wanting more power and to go faster and faster. Sure, there’s some of this that isn’t what we expect to see at the Cup level, but it doesn’t take away the challenge, it doesn’t take away the hard work that goes into it, and they still pass out a trophy at the end of the day. I’m down for whatever, and if the fans buy into it and the fans like it, then that’s what I’m going to race.”

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